Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko has banned about 40 journalists and bloggers from 15 countries as potential "threats to national interests," although he later agreed to remove six Western journalists, including three Moscow-based employees of the BBC, from the list.
The journalists are included in an extensive blacklist issued by Mr. Poroshenko's office, which prohibits 400 individuals and 90 "entities" from setting foot in Ukraine for a year. The President's decree suggests the crackdown is in response to upcoming elections in the rebel-held territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Kiev views as "illegal" and a threat to the Minsk-II peace process.
Ukraine is set to hold nationwide regional elections on Oct. 25, but the rebels have announced they will hold their own two-stage polls beginning a week earlier. The Minsk-II agreement stipulates that any elections must be held "under Ukrainian law," which the rebel plan takes no account of. Nevertheless, there is likely to be considerable pressure on Poroshenko to accept the results of the polls, and move on to direct negotiations with the rebel representatives, a Minsk-II condition Kiev has so far ignored.
It is not clear what logic lies behind the banning of the individuals, who include people from Germany, Israel, Spain, Italy, Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, the US, and Switzerland. Some Ukrainian experts say the common denominator in all cases may have been entering Crimea or rebel-held territory via an unsanctioned border-crossing. But others suggest it's a preemptive strike in the "information war" aimed at preventing election observers or journalists from covering the rebel voting next month.
"Ukraine feels that it has been the loser in the information war, and so now it's changing information tactics," says Vladimir Panchenko, an analyst with the International Center for Political Studies in Kiev. "The logic is clear: Ukraine wants journalists to be journalists, not propagandists."
Andreas Umland, a Swedish economist who has long worked with the Ukrainian government, took to his Facebook page Thursday to compare Poroshenko's decree to other Ukrainian laws that mandate sweeping "decommunization" and to designate controversial World War II partisans as "heroes of Ukraine."
"With an officially pro-Western government and parliamentary coalition in power, these anti-Western policies do not make sense," Mr. Umland writes. "It is frustrating to note how low the Ukrainian government's expertise on the basics of international affairs and cultural diplomacy is."
Kiev has also cracked down on domestic journalists who give the appearance of rebel sympathies, or who criticize the draft. Two such journalists currently face charges of treason, which could bring up to 15 years in prison.
After the BBC complained Thursday, Poroshenko's office announced that the broadcaster's three-person team, including its Moscow-based correspondent and producer, would be removed from the list of those who are banned.
"All Kiev's efforts are focused on maintaining and extending sanctions, mainly against Russia. It seems like we have no other instruments in this hybrid war," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev.
"There may be some excesses in this campaign. Perhaps people got onto the list by saying or doing the wrong thing. And it can't be denied, in this case, that sanctions against journalists look like censorship."